Shipping Lobsters Abroad No Easy Task

First published in Landings, October, 2016

John Kingsley doesn’t mince words. One of three managers of the Perishables Division at OceanAir Inc. in Boston, he speaks rapidly and to the point. “It’s a challenging business, moving live lobsters around the world. Sometimes I want to wear my five-year-old son’s fireman’s hat to work,” he said.

“There’s just massive demand for lobster across the globe,” Kingsley said.

Kingsley is in the business of freight forwarding. A freight forwarding company acts as the intermediary between a shipper and various transportation services such as cargo ships, railways, or airplanes. For Maine lobster dealers who sell lobsters to overseas customers, freight forwarding companies are vital to their success.

Packed to ship, Maine lobsters are now found throughout the world. Photo courtesy of Dorr Lobster.

Packed to ship, Maine lobsters are now found throughout the world. Photo courtesy of Dorr Lobster.

Once upon a time, Maine lobsters were packed into wooden casks and shipped to Boston or New York via train. Later refrigerated trucks took the lobsters to market up and down the East Coast. Now, however, Maine lobsters have a global appeal, as anyone who has attended an international seafood show can attest. Live lobsters are shipped in boxes of sophisticated design to places like Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, or Paris every day. Getting them quickly to their destination with minimal shrinkage and at the least cost is the job of the freight forwarder.

Let’s say you want to move 10,000 pounds of lobster to Rome in time for the Christmas holidays. Those lobsters must collect a dizzying array of official paperwork to get there. They must be approved for export by customs agents then pass through review by the Transportation Safety Authority. There are insurance requirements, bills of lading, health certificates and more. All the paperwork associated with those reviews is handled by the freight forwarder.

“First, you have to be a known shipping company to put stuff on a plane,” Kingsley said. “Your company has to be vetted.” The freight forwarding company ensures that all health inspections are completed and labelling and packing specifications met before it transports the lobsters, which have been kept in a refrigerated holding area, to the airport. “We have chain of custody responsibilities,” Kingsley said. At the airport, the lobsters will be placed in reserved space within a cargo plane. “Ninety-nine percent of the time lobster will move in booked space. We are a lot like a travel agent in that way,” he added. Typically a freight forwarder will book space on a cargo flight a week or less in advance, although occasionally the company will pre-buy that space during times of high demand, such as holidays in China.

The cost to the lobster company for that transport varies based on the length of the flight and overpack, the amount of additional packaging necessary for the lobsters to arrive at their destination alive. “It could be anywhere from 75 cents per pound to $2.50 per pound,” Kingsley said.

When the plane lands in Rome, the freight forwarder’s chain of custody responsibilities end. There the customer’s agent must shepherd the lobsters through that country’s customs office and any other regulatory reviews.

Making sure that a shipment of live lobsters makes it onto the plane with all the required paperwork on time is the task for a freight forwarding company. Photo courtesy of the Chronicle Herald.

Making sure that a shipment of live lobsters makes it onto the plane with all the required paperwork on time is the task for a freight forwarding company. Photo courtesy of the Chronicle Herald.

It’s a fast-paced world and one fraught with crises. “We have 16 to 18 staff here. We are open every day of the year, typically from 3 a.m. to 6 p.m. but sometimes 24 hours a day. Dealing with problems when they do arise is critical. That’s when we rely on the relationships we’ve developed over 25 years,” Kingsley said. It’s not uncommon for a scheduled flight to be cancelled or a shipment held up due to a missing bit of paperwork. “You have to think outside the box and you have to move fast,” he said. OceanAir consolidates shipments and thus, said Kingsley, can keep the cost to its customers down. “We’re doing volume. That means the cost for everyone is less,” he said. “It makes it hard for smaller companies to succeed because of all the effort and cost involved.”

The need for freight forwarders has never been greater in the world of seafood. With increasing demand from Asia, exports of lobster to the Far East have shot up in recent years. Companies such as Maine Coast in York report demand continuing to strengthen in Malaysia, South Korea and Vietnam as well as China. According to the Department of Commerce, lobsters continue to be a top export product from Maine, growing from 7.6% to 12.2% of total exports between 2012 and 2015. It has been the top export commodity of the state since 2013.

“There’s just massive demand for lobster across the globe,” Kingsley said.